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Armenians built the first church in Singapore (see article below). An Armenian woman, Agnes Joaquim also is responsible for discovering the national flower, the "Vanda Miss Joaquim" orchid. The top newspaper and most famous hotel were also built by the small but very wealthy Armenian business community during the colonial period of Singapore's history.


Singapore offers more than just food and shopping

THE JAKARTA POST November 28, 1999

SINGAPORE (JP): Singapore is famous for its food and its shopping but for those with a nose for history there are also a number of interesting diversions in The Lion City. As a major port it naturally attracted the most dynamic merchants from around the world and among these was the community that gave its name to Armenian Street, which runs down toward the world-famous Raffles Hotel. [Note: The Raffles Hotel was founded and made famous by Armenians]

There are no signs today of the Armenians, those survivors of another 20th century holocaust, but the street itself now houses a building which one day will bear another kind of witness to them. The Asian Civilizations Museum, housed at number 39, is an ambitious project in keeping with Singapore's urge to cast itself as something more than a shopaholic's paradise. As museums go it is still as yet a fledgling, but one with great potential.

If the idea of a complete and unifying set of Asian values is chimerical the notion of Asian civilizations in the plural is not. The great continent which stretches from the shores of the Mediterranean to Japan's outlying islands has given rise to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, to name but a few of the religions that it boasts. Thousands of years of history have thrown up a great range of powers that have in their turn faded and gone, leaving behind a kaleidoscope of artifacts and architecture. From Japanese might and unity under the shogun to the glories of old Baghdad under the caliphate and the splendors of Moghul India and Buddhist Borobudur, Asia has many sources of cultural wealth.

The Asian Civilizations Museum aims to bring to the public as much of this wealth of history as possible. A recently finished display, Jewel Power, featured jewelry from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and one had the opportunity not only to see the high standard of craftsmanship but learn a little more about the layered meanings of jewelry for various peoples in the region. On display were items from the Batak region of North Sumatra which the creators and wearers believed invested them with spiritual and magical powers. The Kenyah Dayaks of Kalimantan were represented too, their brass and gold pieces both large and striking.

A current display features Chinese snuff bottles, and here we see what one of the world's oldest civilizations did with one of the first commodities to penetrate it from the West. Snuff, of course, is a derivative of tobacco and arrived in China after the Europeans had discovered the smoker's leaf in the Americas. What the Chinese then did was put snuff into a range of exquisitely crafted and illuminated bottles. The museum's display, featuring 250 bottles mainly from the collection of Singaporean enthusiast Dennis Low, with its clearly written English guides gives full credit to this craftsmanship, pointing out the role played by specially commissioned Jesuit priest-craftsmen in the court of the 17th century Kangzi rulers. If you thought a snuff bottle was, well, just any old bottle, this collection disabuses you promptly.

The Indians of Singapore celebrate Deepavali, the Festival of the Lights, with great relish, just as their counterparts in Malaysia do. The Asian Civilizations Museum has not passed on the significance of this and a current display of Indian lamps highlights yet more outstanding craftsmanship in the intricate metalwork of the subcontinent.

Forthcoming exhibitions at the fine old Armenian Street building include Calendars and Time in Asia, a tribute to some of the many time- keeping systems that the continent has generated. The seam that may be tapped here is indeed rich, the Javanese alone having several different calendrical systems by which their lives can be ordered.

For lovers of Chinese painting, the museum will soon be hosting a display of some of the finest. This and a range of other interesting views of the enormous contributions made to world civilization by Asian cultures promise to make the Asian Civilizations Museum a must for any history buff visiting Singapore. Tired of shopping plazas? Well, head for where the Armenians once lent their vigor to the old colonial city.

[Note: the first church of any kind in Singapore was the Armenian church, which is still standing]

Copyright 1999: The Jakarta Post. All Rights Reserved.

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Armenian rojak, S'pore style

Electric New Paper, Singapore Aug 17 2005

WHEN former Mrs Singapore Brigitte Ow married her Chinese husband, she wanted to impress her father-in-law.

She tried addressing him with 'lou yeh', the Cantonese word for 'father'.

However, because of the wrong intonations, she ended up calling him 'old thing'.

Mrs Ow is Armenian and like many Armenian Singaporeans, she married outside the community.

Identities are changing for this minority group, one of the smallest in Singapore.

While Mrs Ow's grandfather is pure Armenian, her mother, Madam Loretta Tan, is half Armenian.

Mrs Ow, whose maiden name is Aroozoo, and her sister, Mrs Debra Pasaribu, are quarter Armenian and call themselves Singaporeans first. Although never numbering more than 100, Armenians played a key role in Singapore's early history. They are responsible for four of Singapore's most recognisable icons.

The Sarkies brothers who founded the Raffles Hotel were Armenian.

Another Armenian, Mr Catchick Moses, founded The Straits Times.

Vanda Miss Joaquim, the national flower, was so named after its founder Agnes Joaquim, an Armenian horticulturalist.


The Armenians' place of worship, the Armenian Apostolic Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, is a national monument.

Located at Hill Street, it is the oldest Christian place of worship in Singapore.

'Armenians came to Singapore for very different reasons,' said Mr Gregory Basmadjian, one of the trustees of the Armenian Church.

'They did not come just to trade. They were also fleeing persecution at home.' (See other report.)

Today, three million live in Armenia proper. Four million live in the diaspora. Tennis star Andre Agassi and Hollywood actress Cher are among the diaspora.

The Armenian Singaporean community numbers about 20 and the group is finding it hard to keep traditions alive.

A major reason is the high number of mixed marriages.

'When people asked me why I did not marry an Armenian, I told them all the Armenian men I knew were in their 70s!' Mrs Ow said, half in jest. Her children identify themselves as Cantonese after their father and they speak Mandarin, but not Armenian.

'By the time it gets down to our children, the Armenian blood is very watered down,' Mrs Ow said.

But Mrs Ow tries hard to make sure they don't lose the Armenian part.

The 44-year-old corporate trainer explains to them that they are special because they have the best of both east and west.

Mr Basmadjian, a 54-year-old retired bank manager, explained how difficult it is to maintain the Armenian tradition.

The church here is the centre of the Armenian community, but since the end of World War II, it does not have a priest.

There are only services four or five times a year when foreign priests visit. Christmas also falls on 6 Jan, not 25 Dec.

In 1948, they were removed from the national census and placed in the 'Others' category.

But balancing one's identity is not always a struggle. Embracing different cultures can also be a great way to live.

Mr Paul Johannes is the grand-nephew of Ms Agnes Joaquim. The 41-year-old Singaporean Armenian works in Dubai. He was here for a short holiday. And he was dying for satay.

The senior manager with Qatar Airways also has Javanese, Dutch and German blood.

But his friends tell him he is more Singaporean than them.

'I may be Armenian, but Singapore is the only place where I have roots,' he said.

Many left after WWII

ARMENIANS are of a very old race and their origins are still disputed.

Their homeland Armenia lies in the Caucasus, sandwiched between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Today, it is a small republic of 3.5 million people.

Armenian merchants started arriving here after Singapore was opened up for free trade by the British in 1819.


Although only 12 families settled here, the small community began to play a crucial role here.

Half of the Armenian community left after World War II when businesses were destroyed by the war.

The Raffles Hotel was sold. The Sarkis brothers did not have money to repair the hotel. In any case, tourism was dead.

The Armenians also began to feel alienated in a Singapore slowly acquiring a new cultural and political identity.

Photo: Madam Loretta Tan (third from left) with her daughters Debra (far left), Brigitte (fourth from left) and her grandchildren. --KELVIN CHNG

Photo: Part of the local Armenian community with a bishop in front of the Armenian church in 1956.

for photoes:,4136,93143,00.html

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Happy 170th Birthday

Proud Armenians Set to Toast Singapore’s Oldest Church TODAY • Thursday • November 10, 2005 • Singapore JEANINE TAN

The Armenians came to Singapore in the 1800s as merchants and traders. In a census dated January 1824, there were 74 Armenians in Singapore. At its peak, the Armenian community here numbered about 150. There are about 40 Armenians in Singapore now, a mix of expatriates and individuals of Armenian descent. Despite their small numbers, the close-knit Armenian community has made significant contributions to Singapore society. In fact, Armenian Street was named after the community.

During World War II, many Singapore-born Armenians fled the country. While the Armenian Church was left untouched by the Japanese, few Armenians worshipped there and the condition of the church deteriorated. In fact, since the end of World War II, there has not been a regular Armenian priest at the church because the number of Armenians here cannot support one. Trustees and volunteers now look after the church. Today, the church is maintained by contributions from the Armenian community here. The church needs about $100,000 every three years for basic maintenance work. A significant part of the church’s funds also comes from the Armenian communities around the region.

SINGAPOREANS have probably passed the small white chapel countless times in the busy City Hall area and thought nothing of it. But the oldest church in Singapore is about to celebrate its 170th birthday. For a country so young, that’s an astonishing milestone. And the Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator at Hill Street is significant to the tiny Armenian community here.

The church symbolises the unity and progress of the 40 or so Armenians still living in Singapore — and it even granted the wish of one lucky couple that wanted to have a baby. The church was the first Christian church established in Singapore. The Armenian Orthodox Church was commissioned by the 12 Armenian families living in Singapore in the 1800s and completed in 1835. It was designed by Irish architect George Coleman, who was also responsible for the Old Parliament House (now the Arts House). Coleman Street was named after him. From the country’s colonial days, when many parts of Singapore were still jungle, to World War II and the Japanese Occupation, when many Armenians fled for Europe, the church has endured. In comparison, the Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the oldest Catholic Church in Singapore, had its foundation stone laid in 1843. On Friday, there will be celebrations to mark the birthday of the Armenian Church, with Armenians from all over the world flying in to visit the historic building.

“Every day, among the many tourists who sign the guest book in the church, we find that there is at least one Armenian from a foreign country who has left his or her name,” said Pierre Hennes, 33, a volunteer at the church. It is an example of how significant the concept of the church is to Armenians, no matter where they are. In fact, there is even a joke that in Armenia, there are more churches than there are people.

Of Armenian descent, Hennes is an expatriate who runs a venture capital firm here. Like many Armenian expatriates before him, the church was the first place he looked for when he arrived two years ago. The current trustees of the church, Greg Basmadjian and Greg Soghomonian, were also former expatriates who sought comfort in the church when they first arrived.

“The first thing a lot of the Armenian visitors do is go to the church here. And then you find that these people stay for a long time asking all sorts of questions about the Armenian community because a lot of Singapore’s history was created by Armenians,” said Basmadjian, 54, who came here in the 1980s on business and eventually married a Singaporean-Chinese woman. One Armenian couple from Los Angeles not only visited the church during their vacation, they also prayed for a baby. Despite medical evidence indicating that conception would be difficult, the woman became pregnant nine months later and they named their son Gregory after the church. For Armenians in Singapore, so many have inter-married with Singaporeans that they look no different from most Asians.

“Many Singaporean Armenians are only an eighth or one sixteenth Armenian because of the inter-marriages with the various races here,” said Basmadjian. For example, the granddaughter of Martin Sarkies, one half of the Armenian brothers who built the Raffles Hotel, goes by the name of Bridgette Ow because she married a Chinese man.

For a relatively small group of people, the influence of the Armenian community in Singapore is extraordinary. Aside from the Raffles Hotel, The Straits Times was co-founded by Catchick Moses and Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joachim, was discovered by botanist Agnes Joachim. So why is a community that at its peak only numbered around 150 so illustrious? Said Soghomonian, 62: “We may be small but there is quality in what we do. We always try to perform to the best of our abilities. Perhaps it’s a survivor instinct because Armenians have always ventured out of Armenia to make a living. “As much as we take from other communities, we also give back to the same communities.”

Armenian President Begins Visit To Singapore

28.03.2012 Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has arrived in Singapore on a three-day state visit expected to strengthen cooperation with the Southeast Asian city-state that enjoys one of the world’s most developed economies.

On Wednesday Sarkisian met with the island nation’s highest leadership, including President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to discuss prospects of cooperation in various spheres, including education, science, civil service and others.

The Armenian leader was quoted by his press service as describing Singapore as a rapidly developing successful state and a good example for other countries, including Armenia.

The official negotiations resulted in the signing of several documents, including a Memorandum of Understanding in the cultural area and an agreement on the mutual abolishment of visa regime for the holders of diplomatic and service passports.

At the meeting with Singapore’s leading entrepreneurs and heads of corporations Sarkisian discussed prospects of making investments in Armenia. The representatives of the business community of Singapore reportedly showed particular interest in the opportunities for cooperating with Armenia in the areas of information technologies, telecommunications, healthcare, urban development and programming, construction of hydro-energy stations, waste management and water resources.

The Armenian president’s press service said an agreement was reached that Armenian businessmen will pay a visit to Singapore in the near future for the purpose of “translating negotiations and intentions into concrete programs.”

Earlier that day, the Armenian president visited the Singapore Botanic Gardens where an orchid was named after him.

In the evening Singaporean President Tony Tan Keng Yam hosted his Armenian counterpart to a state banquet.

President Tan said people-to-people ties between Singapore and Armenia extended far back into history before the establishment of the two countries’ diplomatic ties.

“Armenians were among the first traders to arrive when the British established a free port in Singapore in 1819. Apart from trading, Armenians were also successful in our publishing, hospitality and services sectors,” the Singaporean leader said. “Our bilateral relationship is one that is premised on many commonalities and complementarities. As small countries, Singapore and Armenia share many common challenges and interests and there is much that we can learn from each other…I am hopeful that the historically strong people-to-people ties between our two countries will continue to be sustained.”